Saying 'goodbye' is more complicated than you might think
There are many ways to say ‘goodbye’ when we finish a telephone call – bye, good bye, see you later and bye bye, to name a few. But how do we get to move into a closing sequence where these forms are used?
Melissa Wright looked at how we end a conversation topic and move into a closing sequence where ‘goodbyes’ are exchanged by analysing 109 naturally occurring telephone conversations between speakers of British English.
She found that closings were introduced by what she calls Multi-Unit Sequence turns (or MST turns). These have two parts – the first part closes the preceding topic of the conversation while the second part acts to open the final closing sequences. For example:
(1) Lesley: but she can’t come because her husband’s
unexpectedly had to go away so she’s
coming to the first one after Christmas
(2) Bodwin: oh splendid
(3) Lesley: yep (0.2) okay then
(4) Bodwin: right well I shall see you
(5) Lesley: see you later …bye bye
(6) Bodwin: bye
Based on Wright (2011:1085)
We can see that in turn (3), in response to Bodwin’s reaction to the news, Lesley replies with yep. This acts as the first part of the MST turn and draws a line under what they have been talking about. Wright notes that a limited range of words can be selected for this job and that yes or yep are usually recruited in this position. Following this, and a slight pause, the second part of the MST turn can now be said, in this case okay then. Once again, although other words and phrases were used in the data, such as alright, right and right-o, okay then is generally favoured. In addition, Wright notes that it seems to be the caller who produces the MST turn as opposed to the person being called, and this is true of the above example since it was Lesley who called Bodwin.
However, even though in the example above Bodwin accepts the meaning of Lesley’s yep and follows her to the closing sequences, this may not always be the case. The first part of an MST turn therefore allows for the other speaker to either accept or reject this move. For example:
(1) Alex: is daddy coming on Wednesday
(2) Ilene: he’s coming on the eighteenth and I think that’s
(3) Alex: okay
(4) Ilene: yah (1.2) so we’ll see you then
(5) Alex: okay but wait a minute uhm uh how are you?
Based on Wright (2011:1086)
We can see in turn (4) that Ilene uses the first part of an MST turn, yah, followed by a long pause. When no response comes from Alex she continues with the second part of the MST turn which is intended to initiate the closing. However, Alex doesn’t accept this move and instead introduces another topic.
Together with the structural and lexical similarities of MSTs, Wright examines their phonetic similarities. These are mainly to do with pitch and intonation. For example, the words in the first part always have a level or falling pitch (indicating termination of topic), while the second part has level or rising intonation (a more questioning intonation, as acceptance or confirmation of the move is sought).
Thus, both the conversation analysis and the phonetic analysis of MST turns prompts Wright to conclude that each part of the MST turn has its own function in the discourse and that each of these parts also has its own phonetic characteristics which complement their function.
Wright, M. (2011) The phonetics-interaction interface in the initiation of closings in everyday English telephone calls. Journal of Pragmatics 43:1080-1099
This summary was written by Jenny Amos